Free and legal MP3: Seazoo (energetic Welsh rock)

Launched off a satisfying, off-kilter progression of four crunchy guitar chords, “Throw It Up” is a friendly, non-stop slice of catchy-quirky indie rock, courtesy of an up-and-coming Welsh quintet.

“Throw It Up” – Seazoo

Launched off a satisfying, off-kilter progression of four crunchy guitar chords, “Throw It Up” is a friendly, non-stop slice of catchy-quirky indie rock, courtesy of an up-and-coming Welsh quintet.

Let’s start back with those guitar chords. First: guitars! Slashy, crunchy guitars. Such sound must be honored here in 2019. I love all sorts of instruments, and am fine with many and varied electronic devices, but I will unceasingly repudiate the extremist cultural rejection of the guitar as an instrument in popular music. And will therefore celebrate with a bit of extra oomph those musicians and bands that still find guitars attractive and useful. Me, I can’t help seeing the lack of guitar in today’s pop world as an admission that performative musical aptitude is no longer a contributing factor in songs that are fed into the Pop Industrial Complex. This is not a news flash, of course. And it’s not to say that there aren’t other talents involved in what emerges onto today’s Hot 100. But as an old-school music fan my ears respond to music that at some level sounds palpably related to individual human capacity, connecting the heart, body, and soul. Maybe that’s just me.

But hey—turns out this is only a semi-unrelated tangent. Although it’s hard to discern from listening to the song, “Throw It Up” was inspired by people front man Ben Trow has seen who are re-thinking their attachments to some of the 21st-century conveniences and technologies that we’ve been sold over the last decade or so. The song, he says, is “about making the decision to reject something in an attempt to improve well-being.”

“Throw It Up” in any case is a fast-paced smiler, enhanced by Trow’s plainspoken vocal style, which conveys a steady bemusement even as the song rushes by. And my paean to guitar work notwithstanding, I love as well the keyboard sounds that founding co-member Llinos Griffiths weaves in and around the general crunch—you’ll hear her in earnest starting around 0:58; the keyboards get emphasized further in the chorus, and then have a wonderful showcase during the instrumental break starting at 1:46, tracing out noodly, sonic pathways and nuances I can’t begin to find words to describe. Maybe even better are the skidding, sci-fi flares going up in the background around 2:08. Did I say this was a guitar song? Actually maybe not.

Online as of mid-August, “Throw It Up” is the first Seazoo release since their debut album, Trunks, in 2018—which by the way you should definitely check out on Bandcamp. Based in Wrexham, the band began as a duo, but radio play led to invitations to perform live, which led to Trow and Griffiths realizing they needed an actual band, which they now have. By all accounts they are currently finishing up a second album, which I hope you are now eagerly awaiting.

Free and legal MP3: The Woodlands (gentle, but brisk and involved)

“Bronze” introduces a surprising amount of instrumental variety into a song that begins as unassumingly as possible.

The Woodlands

“Bronze” – The Woodlands

Not unlike “Strangers,” above, “Bronze” introduces a surprising amount of instrumental variety into, in this case, a song that begins as unassumingly as possible: voice only for 16 seconds, then a strummed acoustic guitar for another little while. A bass joins in, and some backing vocals, and a bit of well-placed percussion. The overall feeling is gentle and uncluttered, even as the texture gradually expands to encompass horns, a violin, hand-claps, and some seriously interesting vocal harmony intervals. While this might not always be my preference, I like how the wife and husband duo of Hannah and Samuel Robertson here manage to use sounds almost more as individual tools than aggregatable components. (You wouldn’t, after all, use both a hammer and a screwdriver at the same time.) The chorus’s recurring lyric is “Don’t quite know where we will go,” and the feel of the song backs that up in the way instruments wander in and out, each with their own little offerings, creating a subtle sense of surprise even as the song moves through its grounding verse and chorus structure.

The way “Bronze” seems almost serially built may be why it can come to a near standstill two-thirds of the way through (2:35) and the halt feels organic and engaging; this interlude of voice and violin is not an interruption, it is simply what happens next. And then what happens next is Hannah singing, “We we we we proceed,” and they do.

Another important part of this song’s charm is in fact Hannah’s voice, which has a Laura Veirs-like mixture of groundedness and breathlessness to it—a child-like adultness, if you will. And her engaging capacity for backing vocals of various timbres and unexpected harmonic positions is an ongoing source of pleasure; her voice, truly, becomes another instrument in The Woodlands’ idiosyncratic but heartwarming toolbox. (Although, for the record, it should be noted that the “oo-oos” in the verses are actually Samuel’s falsetto vocals.)

“Bronze” is the opening track on the album Gems and Bones, which was released last month. You can listen to the whole thing and buy it via Bandcamp. The Woodlands released one previous album back in 2009, also available via Bandcamp. The Robertsons are based in San Luis Obispo, California.

Free and legal MP3: Armand Margjeka (brisk pace, laid-back vibe)

Combining a brisk pace with a laid-back vibe, “Hummingbird” likewise merges a warm acoustic aura with electronic effects.

Armand Margjeka

“Hummingbird” – Armand Margjeka

Combining a brisk pace with a laid-back vibe, “Hummingbird” likewise merges a warm acoustic aura with electronic effects. Margjeka processes his voice in a megaphone-y way that manages to bridge all these polarities: he sounds at once urgent and relaxed, confessional and remote.

Ultimately it is the narrator’s brain being compared to the titular creature here, which explains the song’s rapid pulse and the jittery guitar sound that first surfaces in the background at 0:52 and comes back, in the foreground, around 3:10. As motion-oriented as the song is, there’s also a kind of serenity about its focused, recycling melodies and its deliberately placed sounds—again a kind of echo of the hummingbird, which flutters its wings faster than the eye can see even while floating carefully in one place. I am especially drawn to the insistent verse melody and its upturned conclusion, the ongoing repetitions of which accumulate in my awareness with an edgy kind of poignancy.

Margjeka was born in Albania, and was schooled in the basics of rock’n’roll, not to mention English itself, through recordings and videos that made their way into the country in the post-Wall ’90s. At 18, he emigrated to the U.S. and eventually settled in Birmingham, Alabama. After recording two EPs with an alt-country band called Buffalo Black, Margjeka released the solo album Margo Margo in 2011. “Hummingbird” is the title track to his sophomore release, coming out next month via both PIPEANDGUN and Communicating Vessels. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Matt Pond (muscular yet sensitive uptempo rocker)

Muscular and sensitive in equal parts, “Hole In My Heart” smolders with a reflective kind of momentum.

Matt Pond

“Hole In My Heart” – Matt Pond

Mining some of the same thumpy, quick-paced territory as the terrific “Love To Get Used” (featured here back in 2011), “Hole In My Heart” smolders with a reflective kind of momentum. It’s muscular and sensitive in equal parts, because rather than downplaying instrumentation in favor of straight-ahead energy (what most uptempo songs naturally do), this one is beautifully enhanced by distinct instrumental touches. First, there’s the cello that weaves its way through the rhythm section starting around 0:21. Then check out that somewhat old-fashioned synthesizer accent first heard pressing in on the action at 0:36—a distinctive tone that seems somehow air-driven, as an accordion. You’ll soon hear a banjo in the mix as well (around 0:52), which adds to the hand-sewn, almost hardscrabble ambiance.

Another old-fashioned touch is the balladic device of having the title emerge repeatedly at the end of lyrical lines. But rather than letting this hem him in melodically (often this tactic is employed in lieu of a chorus), Pond uses it as a springboard into what opens into a complex and beautiful chorus. I especially love the very Pond-ian turn of melody on the line “We waste a million woes” (first heard at 0:41). So gorgeous and so fleeting; when the chorus cycles next back to this moment, it’s not even there. We are instead (starting at 0:53) led gracefully and thoughtfully back to the titular phrase.

“Hole In My Heart,” originally on the Matt Pond album, The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand, has recently surfaced as a free and legal MP3 via the release of a three-song EP, which features the album version of the song that you hear here, plus an acoustic version, plus a cover of the Stevie Nicks song “Wild Heart.” You can hear it all and download all the songs for free via SoundCloud. The album itself was released back in February, and was the first album recorded by Matt Pond using his name alone, rather than the band name Matt Pond PA, under which moniker he released many albums and EPs between 1998 and 2011. Note that originally, the aforementioned song “Love to Get Used” was released on the Matt Pond PA EP Spring Fools, in 2011. (It was also, later, the number-one favorite free and legal MP3 of that year here.) It too found its way onto the excellent 2013 solo release.

Matt Pond PA was previously on Fingertips not just in 2011 but in 2010, 2008, 2004, and 2003 as well.

Free and legal MP3: Eleanor Friedberger (singular voice, brisk & word-centric song)

Friedberger’s sound is hurried and wordy, even when the music slows down.

Eleanor Friedberger

“Stare at the Sun” – Eleanor Friedberger

Eleanor Friedberger has a sneaky sort of uniqueness to her sound. Listen casually and you might miss it—nothing sounds obviously revolutionary, she doesn’t whoop or yelp, she doesn’t deconstruct or make sound collages or mold digital files out of rhythm and electronics. She writes and sings relatively normal-sounding songs. And yet damned if she hasn’t arrived at something truly her own, even as she refuses to dumbfound us with quirkiness (which is, alas, just about the only way to get the blogosphere’s undivided attention).

And it’s actually kind of odd that her music isn’t stranger, given the pre-eminent idiosyncrasy of many of the songs she recorded as part of The Fiery Furnaces. But as a solo artist, Friedberger has slipped off the Furnaces’ strangeness like a worn-out layer of skin. Her voice hasn’t really changed, but the setting displays it in newly attractive ways, her edgy mezzo showing off a dusky, Carly Simon-esque roundness one might not have sensed back in Blueberry Boat days. “Stare at the Sun” is a brisk lyric-centric affair—Friedberger’s sound is hurried and wordy, even when the music slows down—propelled by a crisply-strummed guitar and a three-part chorus that gradually takes the song over from its verses. To my ears, the song’s central moment comes in the middle chorus section, on the line “I’ve been in exile so long,” and what makes the moment is how Friedberger shifts the momentum to emphasize the word “so,” breaking the song’s unrelenting forward motion, and giving us something inexplicably memorable in the process.

Friedberger recorded with her brother Matthew as The Fiery Furnaces from 2003 through 2009; the band is currently on hiatus. She released her first solo album in 2011; Fingertips featured the excellent “My Mistakes” from that album, as some may recall. “Stare at the Sun” is from her forthcoming album, Personal Record, due out in June on Merge Records. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: The Reflections (brisk, well-crafted, minor-key)

Brisk and engaging; keep this on repeat for a while and it just about hypnotizes you.

The Reflections

“Disconnected” – The Reflections

Sometimes the wisdom and splendor of a song can be hidden and/or encapsulated in the smallest gesture. Case in point: the second line in the opening verse of “Disconnected,” which begins at 0:41. And it’s not even the line itself but the rhythm of the delivery that I’m talking about. Front man Darian Zahedi sings, “Lost your grip on what you’ve been holding,” and the words skip out with casual, percussive cogency—“what you’ve been” is colloquialized to “wha’cha been,” and it’s the hurrying of the “what” and the in-between-beat swallowing of the “you” that makes the line inexplicably delightful. We had been delivered, following a ghostly pre-introduction, into a driving, minor-key rock song of uncertain lineage—there’s something early-’80s about it and also something early-’00s—but it’s this skippy little delivery that told me that this band was making its own, smartly-executed contribution to whatever you want to call the genre in which this brisk, engaging song is housed. I vote for “rock’n’roll.”

A similarly effective small-but-large gesture follows when the song leaves a lyrical blank at 0:53, after “disconnected and mishandled,” and fills it with a brief, plaintive piano chord. All the better that that same phrase emerges one line later to be employed in (and as) the chorus. It all seems so nonchalant and yet fully engineered. Another little detail to notice: in the second verse, the second line is sung minus the “skip” we heard in the first verse, but with the same kind of conversational phrasing (so easy to aim for and difficult to affect), and now (a bonus) with an ear-catching internal rhyme (1:28): “From a voice so near you almost hear it in your mind.” There are of course some larger good things going on too, here—the repeating ghostly “voice” (synthesized?) that propels and unifies the song, the centrality of an unadorned piano, the feeling of discrete aural space in an age in which mixes too often turn to DIY mush. Most of all I love how unfussy everything seems; the song proceeds in a “just so” kind of way; even the guitar solo (2:56) seems to float in with a fetching combination of diffidence and authority. Keep this on repeat for a while and it just about hypnotizes you.

The Reflections are a duo based in Los Angeles. Their debut full-length album is to be called Limerence and is scheduled some time in the first few months of 2013.

photo credit: Adam Goldberg

Free and legal MP3: Allo Darlin’

Brisk, jangly, and wistful

Allo Darlin'

“Northern Lights” – Allo Darlin’

Brisk and jangly, “Northern Lights” appears indeed to move too quickly for its own lyrics, as sweet-voiced Elizabeth Morris has repeatedly to squeeze extra syllables into tight aural spaces. The effect is somehow fetching. Listen, for example, to how she sings “suddenly came apart” (0:43), or how she handles the opening part of the lyric “And it makes me feel so alive” (1:09). The melodies, meanwhile, with their mid-stride minor-key modulations, have an undertow of wistfulness about them.

The song’s musical and lyrical fulcrum, to my ears, is the chorus lyric “This is the year we’ll make it right,” first heard at 1:12. The chorus presents us with a speedy gallop through a repeatedly descending, vaguely Christmasy melody line, its first two lines covering the same basic interval in such a way that the second line is subtly accentuated. The second time we get to the first two lines, in the second half of the chorus (is anyone still with me??), this moment feels extra-accentuated. And this is where we are when we get to “This is the year we’ll make it right.” And wouldn’t you know that everything else, moving forward, about the song—the “wait for me!” pace, the sweet-voiced singer expressing hopes and dreams, the lower-register guitar melody (consciously or not echoing the Blondie classic “Dreaming” starting at 1:23)—pretty much says hmm this also may not be the year you’re going to make it right. But, you can keep dreaming. (As luck would have it, Blondie will yet have the last word this week; see below.)

Allo Darlin’ is a London-based four-person band split between Brits and Aussies. “Northern Lights” is the third single from the band’s second album, Europe, which was released back in May on Slumberland Records, but the first I’ve found as a free and legal MP3. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead. You can download the song via the title above, or at the record company’s SoundCloud page. The band was featured previously here in October 2010. The three gentlemen in the band are still wearing the same shirts.

Free and legal MP3: Two Wounded Birds (brisk, unironic rock’n’roll, w/ pure pop appeal)

No electronic trickery, thematic gimmickry, or theatrical tomfoolery; rock’n’roll with an unironic heart of pure pop.

Two Wounded Birds

“To Be Young” – Two Wounded Birds

“To Be Young” is so insidiously appealing that anything that might cause some possible trouble here (copping half a melody from the Pretenders “Don’t Get Me Wrong”; intermittently affected vocal style) is neutralized by the soaring success of its pure pop songiness.

A deep-noted guitar lick both launches and anchors the piece. Note how swiftly the music moves even as the lyrics take their time; both in the verse and the chorus there are at least two brisk measures of music between every single lyrical line. This creates a built-in anticipation for each subsequent line—as listeners, we kind of lean in, waiting. This kind of structural delayed gratification is reinforced by melodies that deliver their payoff on the back end. For instance, the verse hook (or, maybe, not so much a hook as a “moment”) is the repeated melody at the end of the line (in the first verse (0:34), it’s the same lyric too: “My head don’t feel right”). In the chorus, as much as the ear is lured in by the opening salvo (“It’s too early”), the song, to my ears, triumphs by nailing the landing, as it were—with the lines “‘Cause we were young/And hopeless,” with that slightly hesitant melisma on the word “young,” the notes of which repeat on “hopeless,” and the music separating them out while we wait, and wait, for the resolution. This comes, actually, only with the transition back to the verse. The song moves on, briskly.

Two Wounded Birds are a quartet from Margate, in the UK. They have previously released an EP and a couple of singles. “To Be Young” is from the band’s self-titled debut album, set for release in June on the Holiday Friends Recording Co., a label co-founded by Jacob Graham of the Drums and now part of the French Kiss Records family. MP3 via Austin Town Hall.

Free and legal MP3: Gold Leaves (’60s pop meets indie pop, w/ Spectorian nod)

A fetching blend of melodramatic ’60s pop and muddy ’10s indie something-or-other, “The Ornament” matches a brisk bashy pace to an introspective melody and evocative if inscrutable lyrics.

Gold Leaves

“The Ornament” – Gold Leaves

A fetching blend of melodramatic ’60s pop and muddy ’10s indie something-or-other, “The Ornament” matches a brisk bashy pace to an introspective melody and evocative if inscrutable lyrics. There’s something Phil Spectory in the air—here an ambiguous echo of the classic Spector beat, there a reverb-enhanced ambiance that knowingly evokes the famous wall of sound. But Grant Olsen—Gold Leaves is his baby, pretty much a solo project—is not merely in retro mode. The song usurps Spectorian elements for its own idiosyncratic purposes. Listen for example to how “The Ornament” strips itself down to its drumbeat in and around the two-minute mark. Spector-produced songs are filled with dramatic drumbeats but nothing like this. The drums here, further, introduce an off-kilter section of the song that seems neither bridge nor verse and which culminates in a dramatic pause before rejoining our regularly scheduled programming.

And that’s another intriguing thing about this song. Even as it nods to a simpler sort of pop, it will not itself be pinned down to either a verse or a chorus that obviously sticks in the head. The verse seems to be divided into three sections, and the lovely turn of melody we hear in the opening lines (0:07-0:20) is never quite returned to—the next two times the song revisits that place, the main melody has been shifted up. I think what happens in a song like this is that you keep unconsciously waiting for that great early moment to return and when it never quite does you are instead led through a journey that seems at once familiar and unsettling. Olsen’s voice—a droopy tenor that’s one part Robin Pecknold, one part Ron Sexsmith—guides us through the song’s lyrical and melodic quirks most endearingly.

Olsen has previously been known to the indie world as half of the duo Arthur & Yu, which released its one album, to date, back in 2007. “The Ornament” is the title track to his debut as Gold Leaves, which will arrive on Hardly Art Records in August. MP3 via Hardly Art. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Free and legal MP3: Amor de Días (swift, mysterious chamber pop)

Despite a glimmer of electronica at the very beginning, “Bunhill Fields” moves forward with acoustic instrumentation (guitar, cello, eventually trumpets) and a brisk, no-nonsense beat—itself an unexpected and invigorating combination.

Amor de Dias

“Bunhill Fields” – Amor de Días

A short song with a lot to chew on. Despite a glimmer of electronica at the very beginning, “Bunhill Fields” moves forward with acoustic instrumentation (guitar, cello, eventually trumpets) and a brisk, no-nonsense beat—itself an unexpected and invigorating combination. (I tend to think of chamber pop as somewhat more noodly and/or deliberate.) Lupe Núñez-Fernández has the whispery, wavery tone of some indie-European chanteuse but the relentless movement (which kicks in for real at 0:36) adds something both solid and haunting to her delivery.

The chorus is swift and concise and semi-unresolved—as Núñez-Fernández sings (I think) “I can’t wait to let it go,” the melody floats back up to where it started, but she lets the word “go” melt downward again, ambiguously. Then there’s that mysterious motif with an inside out finish that follows the chorus (first heard at 0:53), begun by the guitar, played out by the cello and some vague keyboard, which we otherwise don’t hear in the song. Its simple but tricky melodic twist hangs in the air like an unanswered question. The song keeps going, words flying by answering no questions at all. The trumpets, meanwhile, seem determined to stake their own ground, independent of where the melody wants them to be be. It might help to know that Bunhill Fields is a renowned cemetery in the north of London, featuring the graves of William Blake, Daniel Defoe, and Thomas Hardy, among many other notable public figures (“the rocky garden full of stars,” as the lyrics have it). Then again, it might not.

Amor de Días is a side project duo featuring Alasdair MacLean, front man for the Clientele, and Núñez-Fernández, half of the duo Pipas. “Bunhill Fields” is from the album Street of the Love of Days, due out in May on Merge Records. MP3 via the good folks at Merge.